You gotta give credit to those who cheer on the inroads technology is relentlessly making into people’s personal lives. Technology, they say, is “making lives better” by “empowering” ordinary people to take greater “control over their lives”. The nebulous banter seems to resonate with consumers who remain wide-eyed in anticipation for the coming of the next must-have. And the next one. And the next one after that.
As a TIME columnist quipped recently, in “the new economy” you either drive the market or are driven by it. The consumer economy being what it is, we know that, indeed, the world is filled with driven people. Apple is currently swamped with a record 4 million — and rising — pre-orders for Its Coolness, the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. That’s of course not surprising. Cool marketing is at the heart of Apple’s corporate brilliance. Its products are both cool and actually brilliant, so much so that the company has hardly ever found a need to discount even its older products just to clear inventory. In that regard, Apple remains the undisputed tech hit maker.
But what really piqued the interests of tech watchers is the more iffy of the products Apple is pitching this year — the Apple Watch. Though, itself an excellent product (notwithstanding its rather unimpressive battery life), observers have pointed out that the market it is entering is already awash in similar smartwatches. Indeed, not just Apple but just about every tech company out there is scrambling to get into the wearables market. The thinking, as it has emerged now, is that the next marketing frontier for those out to make big bucks out of tech is customer intimacy.
Wearables are the next big thing, apparently. The Apple Watch, for one, is being lauded for its personal health monitoring applications being equipped with sensors that enable the right software to capture data on the wearer’s vital signs, like her heartbeat. Perhaps one day, there will also be chemical sensors in these consumer products that could sense the chemical composition of sweat. Someday in the future, wearables working in conjunction with other wearables in your body will form a micro-network that could connect the dots across every involuntary behaviour you make — the blink rate of your eyes, the number of times you swallow per minute when you speak, how tightly you are clenching your teeth at any moment. And because all that data is being captured by your wearables every minute 24/7, in a matter of years (perhaps even in just months or even just weeks), an unprecedented broad and deep profile of your personal health can be fashioned from all that data and how that profile behaves over time and space.
Then step back from that scenario and ask the question again.
How is all that going to make my life better?
The answer, it seems, is really not that straightforward. Will a to-the-minute profile of my vital signs really make my life better? How often would we really need to consult a data bank full of the minutiae of how our vital cycles and fluids ebb and flow through the day over the years?
Would life really improve with such intimate data in the hands of the likes of Google and Apple?
Think of those annoying calls from marketers we get every now and then. Recall how we wonder when stuck in a conversation with them: How did my name and phone number end up in this bozo’s database? And here we are ready to embrace the technological age of “wearables”.
Now zoom out of that world of quantum techno-consumerism and up to the macro world of wide-area social networking. The assertions being made by tech mavens and marketers alike are the same. We are facing a golden age of “better lives” and more “empowered” lifestyles thanks to all that “social” technology. Social media, they continue, will make us more focused on achieving some nebulous form of “social good”. In short, technology will makes us and all the goodness we are capable of more “social”. Most interesting of all, we are seeing the dawn of an age of tighter “collaboration” with government to achieve that end!
That remains to be seen.
For now, social media seems to serve the public best by protecting them against the government. We can take the hint from the most recent high-profile social media “success story”, the busting of the entire La Loma (Quezon City) police precinct as a result of a photo of an on-going carjacking that went viral over the Net.
It was, indeed, easy to cheer the way social media contributed to the “social good” in this instance, because the causal relationship between the arrest of the crooked police officers and that viral photo was clear and direct. Indeed, the unintended effect as far as the Philippine police are concerned, is that it made Filipinos even more suspcious of them — that there are possibly many more crimes that have not been similarly captured in digital photos that go unreported and unresolved. If there are no photos, it did not happen seems now to be the reality of Philippine criminal investigation that was highlighted here.
So much for collaboration with state authorities. It was more like an adversarial relationship that was created. A deeply-ingrained suspicion of the police all but validated by a fortuitous tap on a smartphone by a Netizen. The only collaboration we may be seeing soon is not one between the state and its citizens but more of one between the state and Big Tech. Scandals reported in the last several months involving the US government’s use of data collected through tech companies could confirm this trend. More recently, Yahoo! had reportedly confirmed aggressive bullying by the US government to comply with the PRISM program of the administration of George W Bush which conscripted Yahoo! as well as other big tech firms like Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Google in a shadowy “semi-automated data request system”.
Closer to home, there is also evidence that the Philippine government is not above mounting arm-twisting tactics to get its way with a tech company. Back in 2010, the government of President Benigno Simeon ‘BS’ Aquino III allegedly hijacked a Facebook page with millions of subscribers that was used by his own supporters during the 2009-2010 election campaign.
And in the private sector front, there are lots of examples of activists and lobbyists engaged in the furthering and propagation of a potpourri of private social and political agendas. The empowering tools of their dubious trade? You guessed it: social media. The “Internet”, lauded by the Net “elite”, as “the backbone of the knowledge economy” has become a pipeline of a lot more disinformation than information. An erstwhile noble “cause” championed by prominent Filipino Netizens to save the tourist vista of the iconic Rizal Monument situated in the Philippines’ Kilometro Uno has been tainted by allegations that its centrepiece propaganda photo dubbed Ang Pambansang Photobomb (“The National Photo Bomb”) depicting the monument to national hero Jose Rizal backdropped by the unsightly construction site of the Torre de Manila condominium building is actually a photoshopped image.
Social good? Or social deceit? To be fair, time will tell and the truth will come out facilitated by social media as well. In the mean time, personal reputations are at stake in this instance — the social media celebs who are this campaign’s proponents and no less than a Philippine Senator, Pia Cayetano, who launched a fiesta Senate inquiry on the matter. Just like the happy ending of the Edsa “gun poking incident” described earlier the true heroes and victims eventually emerge from the woodwork. And that is the sort of “social good” we all hope for.
The plight of the developer of the Torre de Manila, DMCI Homes, may itself be taken up by other formerly disinterested Netizens whose curiosities have been aroused by the question of whether the Pambansang Photobomb image can be re-created by honest means by independent parties. See, the beauty and power of today’s technology lies in its being largely immune to monopolisation. It comes down to who is using it in the smartest way. And that is where the real point of all this lies — that there really still is no substitute for the old ancient low-tech virtues of intelligent thinking, minduflness of consequences, and vision and foresight.
Like every other technology that came before it, social media, all these mobile and wearable devices, and the pipes that connect all of these together are really all just tools that should be put to the service of human beings and not be made out to be ends in themselves.
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